Writing in the BMJ last week, Jeroen Spijker and John MacInnes argue that current measures of dependency are misleading and that the numbers of dependent older people in the UK and other countries have actually been falling in recent years.
In many countries around the world, the proportion of the population over 60 is increasing, however, increasing life spans also mean that those aged 60 can now expect to live longer than they would have in the past.
Hence, the authors argue that simply using the number of people over 60 or 65 to calculate the number of ‘dependent older people’ is not useful.
They say: “The old age dependency ratio defines all people above the statutory pension age as dependent, regardless of their economic, social or medical circumstances. This overlooks the fact that rising life expectancy makes these older people ‘younger’, healthier and fitter than their peers in earlier cohorts.”
The authors say that a better measure of dependency would be to look at the number of people who can expect to live for a further 15 years or less.
Using this figure, as a ratio of people who are in employment (rather than the number of people who are of working age) the authors show that in the UK, dependency has actually fallen by one third over the past four decades.
Further, the authors predict that the real elderly dependency ratio in the UK will fall further, before stabilising for several years and then gradually increasing from around 2020.
The authors go on to show that the dependency rates have also been over-estimated in Germany, France, Japan and the USA.
However, while the authors’ newly calculated dependency ratios look almost flat for the European countries, they show that dependency rates have been rapidly rising in Japan. The authors attribute this, in part, to differences in immigration rates – which are significantly lower in Japan.
“Immigration has played an important role in depressing the real elderly dependency ratio [in Germany and Italy] by raising employment rates,” explain the authors.
The authors conclude: “We should not assume that population ageing itself will strain health and social care systems. Demand for services will rise but continue to be driven by other factors, chiefly progress in medical knowledge and technology, but also the increasing complexity of comorbid age related conditions.”
‘Population ageing: the timebomb that isn’t?‘ by Jeroen Spijker, senior research fellow, and John MacInnes, professor, can be accessed on the BMJ website.